Justice

Obama Calls For Ban On Internet Fast Lanes To Protect Net Neutrality (Updated)

CREDIT: AP

Protesters demonstrate across the street from the Comcast Center Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Philadelphia. Demonstrators expressed opposition to the proposed merger of communications companies Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc., and called for further Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation of Internet traffic to support "net neutrality," advocates who want strong government protections for the open Internet.

In the clearest message to date, President Barack Obama called on the U.S. Federal Communications on Monday to do everything in its power to keep the Internet free and open for everyone by preserving net neutrality.

The FCC “should make it clear that whether you use a computer, phone or tablet, Internet providers (ISPs) have a legal obligation not to block or limit your access to a website,” Obama said in the two-minute video posted to The White House’s YouTube page Monday.

“The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone,” Obama said in a statement. “I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online.”

Under The White House plan, ISPs wouldn’t be allowed to block or throttle legal content. Paid prioritization, or fast and slow lane access, would be forbidden so web services can be accessed without paying an extra fee. Obama also called for the FCC to classify the Internet as a utility, because it has become indispensable in everyday life.

The message comes just days after news leaked that the FCC was planning on reclassifying the Internet as a utility — meaning it could face tougher regulations — but would still allow fast lanes.

A central issue in the net neutrality debate is how to best classify the Internet under existing legislation. A judge struck down the net neutrality rules earlier this year, ruling the agency didn’t have jurisdiction because the Internet was considered an information service. The FCC can only regulate telecommunications services. Re-branding the Internet as an utility like electricity, however, would give the FCC more authority and subject ISPs to stricter regulations.

Obama has consistently been in favor of protecting net neutrality, but has deferred to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on the issue. Monday’s four-point plan illustrates a hard-line stance, and all but orders the FCC to reconsider its final decision.

The FCC has been under fire for months in anticipation of its highly controversial net neutrality plan, which garnered millions of public comments and sparked national debate around keeping the internet free and open. But the FCC’s latest proposal would allow companies such as Verizon to charge websites for faster access — a fee that could be passed on to consumers — and has drawn staunch criticism from civil liberties activists, tech companies and government regulators.

As a result of the public backlash, some companies have tried to appease customers by promising to maintain free-flowing Web access at least in the immediate future. The FCC isn’t expected to make a final decision on the rules until later this year or in early 2015.

Some Republicans have already come out against Obama’s pronouncement, however. In a tweet sent out shortly after the White House published the president’s video, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, ” ‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”

UPDATE

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler responded to President Obama’s statement on net neutrality, calling it a “welcome addition” to the Open Internet debate.

“Like the President, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform for free expression, innovation, and economic growth. We both oppose Internet fast lanes. The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others. We cannot allow broadband networks to cut special deals to prioritize Internet traffic and harm consumers, competition and innovation,” Wheeler said.

But the chairman said there are still a lot of unanswered legal questions when it comes to either reclassifying the Internet or adopting a hybrid approach:

“The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do. The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face.”

Those challenges, he said, include the agency’s ability to tackle policy issues such as consumer privacy and the treatment of mobile services.

“We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online,” Wheeler said.

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